An ongoing challenge for parents of children with autism is how they can help their child socialise with their non-autistic peers. Pamela Wolfberg PhD, a professor of special education and communicative disorders at San Francisco State University, believes the solution may lie in a different type of playgroup: one that focuses on collaborative activities rather than the more typical adult-directed activities.
A new study shows that Integrated Play Groups® (IPGs), developed by Wolfberg in the late 1980s, are effective in teaching children with autism the necessary skills to interact with other children and engage in symbolic play such as pretending. The adults help all the children engage in playful activities of mutual interest, but do not direct the play, because children learn more about how to play through interactions with other kids than they do from adults. However, Wolfberg stresses it’s still important for adults to play with kids in other situations.
Wolfberg and her research team studied 48 children with autism during free-play activities with kids they had not previously met on two occasions before they participated in an IPG program with children they knew, and once after. Following the IPG program, the children’s ability to interact with the kids they didn’t know and to engage in pretend play rose dramatically, indicating the IPGs were successful in providing them with transferable social and symbolic-play skills.
Restrictive play repertoire
Children with autism tend to have a “very restrictive play repertoire”, as Wolfberg describes it. They prefer individual play, have unusual interests and engage in repetitive activity. The goal of IPGs is to move children from engaging in very basic solo levels of play, such as simply banging something, to more symbolic play where they interact with other children.
Wolfberg says that in San Francisco, the earthquake-rescue theme is the most popular. One little boy had an affinity for banging things. The children came up with the idea of building cardboard blocks and having an earthquake. Playing the role of a construction worker, the boy was able to participate with the other kids, building something more elaborate and having a whole fantasy about it.
The success of IPGs is an opportunity for parents, educators and therapists seeking to help children with autism in socialising with their peers. In addition, the IPG model also teaches non-autistic children about autism and how to form friendships with kids who might play, communicate or relate differently.
“This is what families want for their kids,” says Wolfberg. “This flips around the idea that kids with autism are incapable of socialising or incapable of pretending. They have the same innate drive to participate with peers and to engage in playful experiences, but … we have not been able to tap into their potential.”
Future research will look more closely at how IPGs can help children with autism better communicate with non-autistic peers, another challenge they face. Wolfberg also has been adapting the IPG model to be used in other countries.
Written for the Australian Traditional-Medicine Society (ATMS) by Rosemary Ann Ogilvie from materials releasedby San Francisco State University.